Books and Book Reviews: February 2009 Archives

First, an apology to Mr. Lehrer: having reached the end of the book, I found that he has as little use as I do for postmodernism and its errors. That said, the tenor of the book suggests a different philosophical error--materialism. While Lehrer specifically rejects all forms of reductionism within science, it appears that he thinks that Art and Science together explain it all. While that is a very enticing view for me, it seems to lack any element of the spirit and so I am uncertain. But here again, I must admit to reading into, and perhaps reading into incorrectly, so I apologize in advance if I have misinterpreted what is, admittedly, more a lack of evidence than any explicit or clear statement.

The book is wonderful from start to finish. It is provocative and delightful in the way that it weaves the discoveries of artists--A poet, four novelists, a painter, a composer, and a chef--into a narrative about modern discoveries about how the brain works. You learn about the reality of umami, the mystery of the self, the (in)persistence of memory, the structure of language, the structure of painting and art, and the meaning of freedom. All are fascinating. You learn how the act of remembering subtly alters the memories--much as Proust described in his magnificent opus. You find out that language has deep structures that, try as you might, don't really allow for violation--sense seems to surface. You learn why you may sometimes hate something upon first hearing it and then grow gradually to enjoy it.

Perhaps one of the most interesting and important lessons I will take away from the book is simple and appropriate for Lent. Reality is objective: our consciousness of it is, to some extent, our choice. That is, the human brain is limited. It can only absorb so much. So, there is a sense in which Emperor Fredrick in Amadeus is right. The human brain can only deal with so much and then it becomes "too many notes." We can see the tree as a whole, but only when we choose to focus on them do we become conscious of individual leaves. If we pick up a fallen leaf, we may observe the whole thing against a background that has become a blur. If we look more closely, the leaf falls away and we become aware of the veining structure. All of these things are part of an objective reality, but we choose what we will become conscious of. In a sense, so it is with God. He is the ultimate Objective Reality. However, we can choose to witness His works and His power here, or we can choose to see everything as a blur and not see anything of Him. That is our choice. Lent gives us an opportunity to focus our perception, to change our consciousness of things as they are and begin to participate in them as the Really Are.

Back to Mr. Lehrer's book--a fine, substantive work--at once a scholarly study of recent findings in neuroscience by a person of taste and understanding who reads literature as well as he studies science. A rare and much-to-be-valued skill in the world today. If you have any interest in the workings of the brain and the workings of literature, art, and even cooking, you could find no better companion that Mr. Lehrer to guide you through both.

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Brave New World--Aldous Huxley

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is how very bad it is as a novel and how very good it is as cautionary tale.

As a novel it starts with a long lecture about the production of embryos in bottles and the process of Bokanovskificaiton (a kind of cloning) and hypnopaedic education. This occupies a large portion of the first part of the book. Toward the end of the novel is a long disquisition by the current controller of the region in which all of the main characters live about why he chose to abandon pursuit of pure science to become controller. Not promising material for the apprentice novelist.

And yet, Huxley manages to take these two lectures, sandwich in some unlikely incidents related to a vacation in New Mexico and create a future dystopia that we seem to approach asymptotically and unconsciously.

A couple of year back Peter Kreeft argued that Huxley's future was far more probable than Orwell's (not in every particularly, nor should I impute to him the idea that we proceeding directly along the lines of Huxley--he never implies that). I would say that neither is more probable than the other but that both Huxley and Orwell observed trends of dehumanizing that some parts of society are doing their very best to effect. For example, all of the talk about strengthening "hate crime" legislation is a parallel of Orwell's "thought police." How is a crime any worse as a result of the thought behind it? Is it more terrible to beat up a person because you don't like the way he walks than it is because you don't like his skin color? Neither is rational, nor is either in any way permissible. But we will censor thought. And let's not even go into the concept of the memory hole, given that the entire polity seems to have convenient and large gaps in its collective memory that permit some people to do exactly the same things they condemned in others and yet be praised.

On the Huxley front, we have convenient abortuaries to stop unauthorized gestation. We have the progressive desensitization of the population on matters sexual so that the whole society becomes hypersexual to the point where group sex is a religious ritual. We have the deliberate manipulation of genetic material to produce the kind of people we want (we're not far off). And we have of course the "malthusian belt" and the protocols associated with divorcing sexual activity and procreation. There are probably countless other examples of the dystopian vision being realized, but these suffice to make the point.

Huxley's novel is not particularly good by the standards of a novel. The characters aren't particularly compelling, the narrative isn't particularly well thought-out, the intruding even if momentary lectures, while fascinating, don't really progress the story along. Despite its flaws, the novel remains a compelling read and a compelling cautionary tale of what happens when we seek temporal happiness first and foremost and arrange society to arrive at that end. We wind up with a society in which old is necessarily bad--from Shakespeare to Bach, and one in which when you lose your looks you may as well welcome death as you have been trained to all your life.

Fascinating and still powerful reading for anyone who is paying attention to what goes on in the world today.

(I should also note that this was a Kindle read.)

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The (non-) Determinism of DNA

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Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an endlessly entertaining read, containing more passages to underline than not. It is one of those books in which it might be wiser simply to cross through the extra few lines one does not wish to reconsider in subsequent readings. While the author's attitudes and conclusions are sometimes at odds with my own, his presentation of hard data is fascinating.

from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

What makes us human, and what makes each of us his or her own human, is not simply the genes that we have buried in our base pairs, but how our cells, in dialogue with our environment, feed back to our DNA, changing the way we read ourselves. Life is a dialectic. For example, the code sequence GTAAGT can be translated as instructions to insert the amino acid valine and serine; read as a spacer, a genetic pause that keeps other protein parts an appropriate distance from one another; or interpreted as a signal to cut the transcript at that point. Our human DNA is defined by its mulitplicity of possible meanings; it is a code that requires context. This is why we can share 42 percent of our genome with an insect and 98.7 percent with a chimpanzee and yet still be so completely different from both.

By demonstrating the limits of genetic determinism, the Human Genome Project ended up becoming an ironic affirmation of our individuality. By failing to explain us, the project showed that humanity is not simply a text. It forced molecular biology to focus on how our genes interact with the real world. Our nature, it turns out, is endlessly modified by our nurture. This uncharted area is where the questions get interesting (and inextricably difficult).

Add to these observations the fact that they stem from and flow back into discussion of great poets, novelists, painters, and even chefs, and you can see how the book might be a fascinating discussion of neurobiology and the human mind.

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Too Many Cooks--Rex Stout


I see that I somehow overlooked reviewing this Nero Wolfe mystery. I was reminded of it by a reference in Proust Was a Neuroscientist to the renowned chef Brillat-Savarin, who is mentioned several times throughout this book.

Well, where to start? Nero Wolfe is invited to a meeting of Le Quinze Maitres, an elite group of chefs that meets each year. This year the meeting is one in which they need to add three to their number due to attrition over time--so it's more like Le Douze Maitres. To attend this meeting Wolfe travels by train from New York to Greenbrier West Va., there to stay at the famous spa--in nearly inarticulate terror throughout the journey. However, he has been invited to be guest speaker on Les Contributions Americain au haute cuisine. In the course of his stay one of les quinze is murdered and another, a close friend of Wolfe's, Vukcic (owner of Rusterman's) accused of the crime. As no one is shedding any tears over the dead many, we have a room full of suspects, sharp kitchen knives, and motives.

Despite the usual Stout sparkling dialogue and precise writing, the book does of have one disturbing element--the ugly racist epithets and language used by Archie to describe the wait staff and servants at the resort. It is counter-balanced in good part by Wolfe's own attitude and language, but this flaw did detract (a little) from my overall enjoyment of the book.

However, given that this is the book in which Wolfe obtains the recipe for his most favorite sausage--saucisse minuit and it takes place atypically outside of the Brownstone and away from the Orchid Room, it has much to recommend it from point of view of uniqueness in the oeuvre.

A fine mystery, well done, with a sparkle of humor, an interesting test for chefs, and a nice resolution in which the murderer is revealed as Wolfe finishes his speech on American cuisine. Well worth your time if you're interested in well-written mysteries.

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Against Antineurogenesis


For those of us of a certain age, the truism was passed down that the human brain was more-or-less fixed at or short after birth. The neurons you had at the time of fixing were all that you would have your entire life and the brain was a rather obstinate and immaleable organ.

Jonah Lehrer recounts the work of Elizabeth Gould, who in 1989 began exploring the question of neurogenesis and discovered that, in fact, the human brain is a highly malleable organ with new neurons being generated regularly.

from Proust was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

Neuroscience is just beginning to discover the profound ramifications of this discovery. The hippocampus, the part of the brain that modulates learning and memory, is continually supplied with new neurons, which help us to learn and remember new ideas and behaviors. Other scientists have discovered that antidepressants work by stimulating neurogenesis (at least in rodents) , implying that depression is ultimately caused by a decrease in the amount of new neurons, and not by a lack of seratonin. A new class of antidepressants is being developed that targets the neurogenesis pathway. For some reason, newborn brain cells make us happy.

And while freedom remains an abstract idea, neurogenesis is cellular evidence that we evolved to never stop evolving. Eliot was right: to be alive is to be ceaselessly beginning. As she wrote in Middlemarch, the "mind [is] as active as phosphorus." Since we start every day with a slightly new brain, neurogenesis ensures that we are never done with our changes. In the constant turmoil of our cells--in the irrepressible plasticity of our brains--we find our freedom.

The last sentence may be hyperbole (I'd have to give it more consideration that I have done), however, it is amazing to me that these insights should have been lilnked to the work of George Eliot. The human mind is capable of linking ideas that at first blush seem to have nothing to do with one another. It is this linking of ideas that moves us forward in science, the arts, and even civilization.

Someday, perhaps, we'll be able to make the logical, empathetic, and obvious link that a child in the womb is indeed a living creature separate from and dependent upon the mother for some period of time. Wouldn't it be marvelous if the implications of that statement could take hold of our collective hearts and minds and bring us out of the age of barbarism that we cast ourselves into in the name of some fictive freedom?

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But the real point is . . . Whitman


from Proust Was a Neuroscientist
Jonah Lehrer

But Whitman also knew that his poems were not simply odes to the material body. This was the mistake that his Victorian critics made; by taking his references to orgasms and organs literally, they missed his true poetic epiphany. The moral of Whitman's verse was that the body wasn't merely a body. Just as leaves of grass grow out of the dirt, feelings grow out of the flesh. What Whitman wanted to show was how these two different substances--the grass and the dirt, the body and the mind--were actually inseparable. You couldn't write poems about one without acknowledging the presence of the other. As Whitman declared, "I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems."

Sometime back on the Disputations blog, there was a lengthy interchange about the resurrection of the body, in which Tom repeatedly stated (and, I've come to acknowledge, correctly) that the resurrection of the body dealt with the real body that we experience and in some mysterious way ARE right now. That is to say that what we have now will be the real body we have at the resurrection. And this makes perfect sense if the body is more than a container, but is in some way the vehicle and the reality of much of what we are.

I know, that doesn't make any real sense, and I'll have to think it through further to say something more like what I mean. The bottom line is that the body helps to define the mind and the mind the body and moving our present intellect, and perhaps even spirit to some new conveyance would in a very deep way violate who we are. God would not do that because He loves us as we are and loves who we are--without our bodies we are not that same person.

Or so it would seem that Whitman says--and there is much to agree with in the hypothesis.

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For the Hyperrationalists


One of the things that most disturbs me about some of the arguments and statements I have read regarding reason and the Church is that were one to take them at face value, they would seem to imply no place whatsoever for the emotional life. As a result, I found the following interesting:

from Proust Was a Neuroscientists
Jonah Lehrer

One of Damasio's most surprising discoveries is that the feeling generated by the body are an essential element of rational thought. Although we typically assume that our emotions interfere with reason, Damasio's emotionless patients proved incapable of making reasonable decisions. After suffering their brain injuries, all began displaying disturbing changes in behavior. Some made terrible investments and ended up bankrupt; others became dishonest and antisocial; most just spent hours deliberating over irrelevant details. According to Damasio, their frustrating lives are vivid proof that rationality requires feeling, and feeling requires the body. (As Nietzshce put it, "There is more reason in your body than in your best wisdom.)

Now, pro forma for me, I must go and look up this Damasio and see on what evidence he bases these conclusions. They are interesting and make a certain sort of intuitive sense--but that is insufficient when making these arguments a matter of the scientific record. So, if I find anything of interest, I'll try to post.

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The Amazon Vision

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"Our vision for Kindle is to have every book ever printed, in any language, all available in under 30 seconds." (Quotation from the front page Amazon announcement of the Kindle 2)

Breathtaking vision, and perhaps not all good in consideration of some of the books printed. But to be able to get I Married a Witch, The Bishop's Jaegers, Allan and the Ice Gods, and the complete opus of Mrs. Oliphant is something that boggles the mind and gives hope for the future of literacy. Bravo for the vision.

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Maimonides Quotation for the Day


From the book referenced below:

"A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in the back." Moses Maimonides

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Reading a marvelous book that I got as a result of being associated with Library Thing: Israel Drazin's Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind. From it, we get some very interesting insights such as:

from Maimonides: The Exceptional Mind
Israel Drazin

Nevertheless, Maimonides teaches that the acceptance of rabbinical opinions applies only to halakhah, rules relating to behavior, but not to rabbinical opinions on non-halakhic matters. The reason for this conclusion should be obvious. The early rabbis' views were usually based on the science of their times; these primitive conclusions inevitably led, at times to error on the part of the rabbis. Therefore, Maimonides insists, one is free to analyze and consider the opinions of the rabbis and then accept, reject, or modify them; in fact, this is the very purpose for which God granted humans intelligence: to study and evaluate.

Maimonides records his assessment of rabbis and other sages of the former historic period in the introduction to his Mishneh Torah. He writes that the halakhic component of "the Babylonian Talmud is binding on all Israel. . . because all the customs, decrees and institutions mentioned in the Talmud received the assent of all Israel." Thus only the "customs, decrees and institutions," the halahkic elements received "the assent of all Israel." However, the non-halakhic opinions did not receive that assent and thus are not obligatory.

It sounds something like a cross between Papal infallibility on matter of doctrine and the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium . Either way, it seems a good summary of what infallibility touches and what it doesn't. The Pope's opinions about algebra, while conceivably interesting and worthy of pondering, are not binding. Nor is his opinion of evolution (except in its cautions related to the spiritual life), nor any scientific, literary, historical, or philosophical matter.

Of course, Papal infallibility is limited at any rate to ex Cathedra pronouncements and clear articulations of the ordinary and universal Magisterium of the Catholic Church. But the Pope's endorsement of a movie does not make that a good movie per se. His announcement (should he decide to decree one) that Titian was the world's foremost painter and should be revered for his voluptuous nudes would be merely an opinion. One would need to weigh that opinion against one's evaluation of the Pope as an art critic and aesthete, but one would under no circumstances be bound to obedience on the matter of Titian as uber-artist.

I don't know why I'm saying all of this except that I guess I thought it was interesting that this same point is a point of contention in circles outside of the Catholic Church. It had never occurred to me that others struggled with this same doctrine.

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* recommended

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Non-Stop by Brian W Aldiss

*Foundation by Isaac Asimov

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

*The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood--Really, this bit of anti-religious, anti-male, anti-anti in SF drag--puhleese. This is a strong indication to me that the list of 1,000 has a great many that can be missed.

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

The Drowned World by JG Ballard

Crash by JG Ballard It's pretty clear by the inclusion of Paul Auster and this work, in particular, that the list-makers are incapable of distinguishing SFF and surrealism. Surrealism is NOT SFF and should not be confused with it.

Millennium People by JG Ballard

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

Consider Phlebas by Iain M Banks

Weaveworld by Clive Barker

Darkmans by Nicola Barker

The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter H.G. Wells revisited, interesting

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

*Vathek by William Beckford

*The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester Required reading along with The Demolished Man.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Lost Souls by Poppy Z Brite

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown

Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys

*The Master and Margarita by Mikhail BulgakovSFF? Hardly, but then where does one put it?

The Coming Race by EGEL Bulwer-Lytton
**A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The End of the World News by Anthony Burgess

*A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs A real romp, andnot nearly as bad as you might expect from early pulp fiction. Seems like damning with faint praise, but this book is a lot of fun and great for a brain-break.

Naked Lunch by William Burroughs--Well, I read at it, does that count?
Kindred by Octavia Butler

Erewhon by Samuel Butler

The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino

The Influence by Ramsey Campbell

*Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

*Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter

The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Man who was Thursday by GK Chesterton

**Childhood's End by Arthur C Clarke

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Hello Summer, Goodbye by Michael G Coney

Girlfriend in a Coma by Douglas Coupland

House of Leaves by Mark DanielewskiPlease--what a mess of a post-modernist morass--unreadable, incomprehensible, and worst of all dull.

Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq

The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R Delaney

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

*The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

Camp Concentration by Thomas M Disch

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

**The Magus by John Fowles--Weird, wild, and wonderful in ways that defy description.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Red Shift by Alan Garner

Neuromancer by William Gibson--I'm not as impressed with this as many are. Didn't much care for it when it was brand new, and haven't grown fonder with time. Far prefer the writing of Bruce Sterling in the same genre.

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Lord of the Flies by William GoldingSFF, hardly. Allegory, fable, satire, cautionary tale, caustic view of society, but SFF?

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Light by M John Harrison

*The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne SFF--it seems someone is not paying much attention.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A Heinlein

*Dune by Frank L Herbert

*The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse--SFF? Again, surrealism and uncategorizable gets dumped into SFF.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

*The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

**Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

***The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson--Perhaps an all-time favorite--certainly one of the finest haunted house novels (or is it) ever.

**The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

The Children of Men by PD James

After London; or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies

Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones

**The Trial by Franz Kafka

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

The Shining by Stephen King

The Victorian Chaise-longue by Marghanita Laski

Uncle Silas by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

The Earthsea Series by Ursula Le Guin

*The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin--Not sure I care for the message; however, it was strong then and remains strong

*Solaris by Stanislaw Lem--Weird, but not nearly so wonderful as the Russian movie made from same. Lem's socialism ocassionally obscures his powerful vision.

Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing

The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis
*The Monk by Matthew Lewis--Classic Gothic stuff--and I mean way over the top. What Gothic was meant to be (on opium).

A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay

The Night Sessions by Ken Macleod

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Melmoth the Wanderer by Charles Maturin

The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe

***The Road by Cormac McCarthyThey're making a movie from this?

Ascent by Jed Mercurio

The Scar by China Mieville

Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller

**A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Mother London by Michael Moorcock

News from Nowhere by William Morris

*Beloved by Toni Morrison--SFF? I guess it falls in the realm of dark fantasy, but somehow--oh, I don't know.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Ada or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Vurt by Jeff Noon

The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Fight Club by Chuck PalahniukAgain inability to distinguish surrealism from SFF

Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and CM Kornbluth

A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

The Discworld Series by Terry Pratchett

The Prestige by Christopher Priest

His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

Gargantua and Pantagruel by Francois Rabelais

*The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe--One of the books that set the conventions of the Gothic and one most thoroughly skewered by Northanger Abbey

Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling

Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie--Ho hum, if they had just ignored it, it would have gone away into a well-deserved academic obscurity. Read Midnight's Children instead.

The Female Man by Joanna Russ--Never write occassional poetry or politically inspired fiction

Air by Geoff Ryman

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Blindness by Jose Saramago

How the Dead Live by Will Self

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

**Snow Crash by Neal StephensonThe end is a little soft, but you have to love a hero named Hiro Protagonist

*The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

***Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Insult by Rupert Thomson

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

*The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut--This is actually a really good choice for Vonnegut--I'm surprised it didn't include the more politcal Slaughterhouse 5

*The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole--The Granddaddy of the Gothic

Institute Benjamenta by Robert Walser

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner

Affinity by Sarah Waters

The Time Machine by HG Wells

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

**The Sword in the Stone by TH White

The Old Men at the Zoo by Angus Wilson

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Orlando by Virginia Woolf--If you're going to read Virginia Woolf, don't start here. The myth of Teresias retold.

Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham

We by Yevgeny ZamyatinBack in my dystopian phase--Ayn Rand's Anthem, Bradbury's Fahrenheit451, Orwell's 1984, Huxley's Brave New World, this was a stand-out. But I don't remember it much now. Will have to revisit

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An Interesting Book Blog

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Murder, Mormons, Brigham Young, Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, footprints, revenge, Victorian London, disguises and detection galore. What else can it be but the beginning of the modern detective story.

Reading this classic after many years, after one's first love affair with the whole Holmesian opus, leaves one with quite a different feeling from that first enchantment. With more experience of the detective novel, you realize that Doyle does not "play fair," at least in the first of the great dectective's opus. The murderer is randomly pulled out of a hansom cab somewhere in London. Additionally, there is a lengthy digression just after apprehending the culprit and before Holmes explains how he reached the conclusions he did.

And yet. . . and yet. . . it is still the great Holmes, and it is still a great read, and it is still a marvelous journey into a world first opened up in childhood. Doyle was an enormously clever author who is able to make the most unlikely parlor trick make sense. (Of course when your detective writes monographs on identifying samples of ash even as he has no notion of the Copernican nature of the solar system--well, what can you say.)

If, for some reason, you've failed to meet Sherlock Holmes before, do yourself a favor and visit him now. Perhaps not in this first great opus, but in the short stories. But don't forget to get around to this novel because it is

Highly recommended.

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An Evil Guest--Gene Wolfe


What an oddity--a film noir Lovecraftian Mythos science fiction novel/musical.

Despite his acclaim in the Science Fiction world as well as in Catholic Blogland, I have to admit that Gene Wolfe is a writer who defeats me more often than not. I find his novels hard going for the most part. Even his short stories are challenging.

In this one, I had a hook. Wolfe latched into both the noir novel genre and the mythos (although that is not completely clear until near the end of the book). And then there's the title. . . who exactly is the evil guest? (The epigraph tells you, but it tells you very little.)

Perhaps it is the densely packed symbology, or perhaps it is my own intellectual density, but I'm hard-pressed to make hide nor hair of this book. I got to the end of it, finding that I enjoyed it thoroughly even while I don't have any notion of what Wolfe's point was in writing it.

The story centers around an up and coming actress is who catapulted to stardom by a man who wishes to use her charms to hunt down/lure in another person who is of interest to the FBI for reasons that it is hard to discern. The young lady is approached by the second man of interest and asked to star in a production of a musical featuring a Volcano God. Through many twists and turns and several murders, we are taken on a course that finally careens toward R'lyeh where the Storm God (as he is called by the local natives) lies dreaming. And all together now: That is not dead that can eternal lie, and with strange aeons, even death may die. Having encountered the Storm God, to everyone's detriment, the story resolves itself with our heroine hieing herself off to Woldercan, the world of wonders to meet Gideon Chase, the man who catapulted her to stardom.

And the point? Honestly, I haven't a clue. It was one of the most exasperating things. And yet despite my own incomprehension of what Mr. Wolfe was about, I found that i enjoyed the book immensely. Maybe enough to go back at some future date and puzzle through the whole thing again.

Highly recommended.

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1000 Novels You MUST Read

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Don't you just love lists?

This one has a thousand titles but best of all, it's filled with article after article and list after list of stuff to read. Yep! Stuff to read.

And for those who want "just the facts," here's a link to just the list.

It surely is a list!

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Old Man's War--John Scalzi

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Following in the footsteps of such great Heinlein classics as Glory Road and Starship Troopers, John Scalzi has given us an interesting take on the old war theme. To start with, the enlistees in this war need to be 75 years old and older. Sounds odd, but it works out well both for the colonies and for the elderly.

Naturally we're engaged in a pan-galactic set of skrimishes centered around Earth's colonization of the planets. We meet all sorts of races, including the extremely interesting and highly technologically advanced Consu--a beetle-like race that seems to go to war for the salvation of souls.

The novel tracks the career of John Perry from recruit to Captain. (It is the first of a [so-far] trilogy.) And interestingly, while the wars and battles are something of a centerpiece, there is a pervasive love story embedded throughout. John loves his deceased wife Kathy and mysteriously discovers her amongst the "Ghost Brigades." (You have to read it to find out.)

The novel was nominated for a Hugo award. Judging by the quality and power of the writing alone, it deserved the nomination (and depending on what else was nominated that year, perhaps the award).

Be aware that the language can be at times raw and many of the scenes are quite graphically horrible. However, this is one of the classic war in space novels along with Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman's The Forever War.


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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from February 2009.

Books and Book Reviews: January 2009 is the previous archive.

Books and Book Reviews: March 2009 is the next archive.

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